NBA Observations: Slow Starts, Zion Update, COVID Concerns and More Fantasy Headlines

NBA Observations: Slow Starts, Zion Update, COVID Concerns and More Fantasy Headlines

This article is part of our NBA Observations series.

As we move into Week 3 of the NBA season, we're starting to gain a bit more clarity with most teams having played at least six games (the Suns are the only team to play five games). While plenty of trends and storylines will continue to develop in the coming weeks, the larger the sample grows, the easier it becomes to parse fact from fiction.

Paul George currently ranks as the No. 1 overall fantasy player in eight-category, per-game value. He's followed by Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokic, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler rounding out the top five. No major surprises there, but entering Tuesday night, Ja Morant (6), Miles Bridges (9), Al Horford (10), Jonas Valanciunas (16) and Harrison Barnes (19) all rank as top-20 players. As the season plays out, some of those names will certainly fade, but Morant and Bridges, in particular, have been among the young season's biggest breakouts.

Meanwhile, the following players all rank outside of the top-50: Devin Booker (58), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (60), Deandre Ayton (63), Damian Lillard (68), Draymond Green (95), Christian Wood (95) and Michael Porter Jr. (157). Most of those players have proven track records and should gradually claw their way up the rankings, but if the struggles continue over the next few weeks, alarm bells will begin to sound. For those managing Porter Jr., those alarms may already be going off.

In this week's tour around the league, we'll dig deeper into some of the players mentioned above and take a glance at all of the top fantasy storylines in the NBA:

Lillard's slow start continues

To put this in the fair context, Lillard is still a top-70 player despite getting off to easily the worst start of his career. But top-70 isn't nearly good enough for a player with a top-10 preseason ADP. While he finished Monday's loss to the shorthanded Sixers with 20 points, 10 assists and seven boards, he once again struggled from three, converting only 2-of-9 attempts. 

Since going 5-of-7 from deep in Friday's win over the Clippers, Lillard is a combined four for his last 23. Already on the young season, he's logged 0-of-9, 0-of-8, 2-of-14 and 2-of-9 efforts. Shooting just 23.1 percent from three on 9.3 attempts per game has resulted in a 34.9 field goal percentage -- more than 10 percentage points lower than last season's figure (45.1% FG).

Thankfully, Lillard is off to a career-best start in terms of assists (8.6 APG), so that's helped buoy his fantasy value. One other area to monitor, however, is Lillard's free throw rate, which is down considerably compared to last season. Through seven games, he's taking just 3.9 free throws per game -- down from 7.2 last season and 7.8 in 2019-20. The good news is he's still drilling them at an ultra-elite rate (92.6% FT).

COVID-19 strikes again

One of my goals for this season was to not have to dedicate a weekly headline to COVID-19 absences, but here we are once again. On Monday, three key players -- Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton and Kevin Love -- entered the league's health and safety protocols. All three are still without clear timetables, but the expectation is that they'll miss multiple games, effectively relegating them to the bench in weekly lineup leagues. 

  • Harris was off to a good start through six games, posting 19.8 points, a career-high 9.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. His overall field goal percentage (54.3% FG) hasn't really been impacted by a slow start from three (32.0% 3PT; 4.2 3PA/G).
    • Furkan Korkmaz started Monday's win over Portland in Harris' place and finished with 15 points, two rebounds, five assists and a steal
  • Middleton was off to a similarly slow start from three (25.7% 3Pt), but the rest of his stat profile looks like what we've come to expect over the last half-decade (20.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG).
  • Meanwhile, Love had slowly worked his way into deeper-league consideration and was even on the radar for standard-league managers in desperate need of rebounds. Love had two double-doubles in his last three games, though the outlier was a true dud (four points, three rebounds, two assists in 16 minutes)

Anthony, Wagner looking good in Orlando

No one is mistaking the 2-6 Magic, owners of the worst defense in the NBA, for a good basketball team (losing to the Pistons is an automatic disqualifier), but plenty of positive things are happening down in Orlando. After Monday night's blowout win over Minnesota, the Magic have four players -- Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter and Franz Wagner -- ranked inside the top-85 in eight-category leagues (per-game value).

  • Anthony has been a revelation, averaging 22.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 3.7 threes with a 51/52/81 shooting line over his last six games. His 16-rebound effort against the Knicks last weekend was an outlier, but the 6-1 guard has snagged at least nine boards in three of five games since.
  • Among rookies, Wagner ranks behind only Evan Mobley and Josh Giddey in per-game value. After erupting for 28 points (5-9 3Pt), four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block Monday night, Wagner has scored in double figures in all eight games. The No. 8 overall pick is hitting 46.3 percent of his 5.1 three-point attempts per game.
    • The Magic's other top-10 pick, Jalen Suggs, continues to struggle to score efficiently (30.8% FG), but in terms of counting stats he's up to a respectable 13.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 threes and 1.0 steals on the season.
  • Starting together up front, Bamba and Carter continue to provide steady production. Bamba has five double-doubles in eight games and five games with multiple blocks (he had 10 boards and four blocks Monday night) while shooting 40.6 percent from three. Carter isn't offering as much defensive value as Bamba, but he has four double-doubles of his own and has hit at least one three-pointer in all eight games (10-of-26, 38.5% 3PT).
  • Chuma Okeke made his debut Saturday after missing the first six games of the season with a bone bruise in his hip. He finished Monday's win with eight points (2-9 FG, 2-7 3Pt, 2-2 FT), four rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes.

Zion Williamson still a few weeks away

It's been a mostly disastrous start for the 1-6 Pelicans, who announced Monday that Williamson will be re-evaluated in two-to-three weeks as he continues to work back from offseason foot surgery. Coach Willie Green said Williamson has begun taking part in on-court work, but he's yet to return to 5-on-5 drills. If this next round of scans elicits positive results, Williamson could be back on the floor before Thanksgiving.

Even so, it's fair to wonder what Williamson -- who appeared noticeably heavier during the preseason -- will look like once he's back. Considering the circumstances, he could face a fairly lengthy ramp-up period, so fantasy managers may not get the player they were expecting until sometime in December.   

Odds and ends

  • The struggles continued Monday night for Michael Porter Jr., who's off to an incredibly slow start to the season. He's still yet to score more than 15 points in any game, and he's come in under that number in six straight. Porter Jr. finished Monday's loss to Memphis with 10 points (4-9 FG, 0-3 3Pt, 2-4 FT), eight rebounds, a steal and a block in 36 minutes. Through seven games, he's now a combined 10-of-43 from downtown and with only eight free throw attempts in 223 minutes.
  • Rookie Scottie Barnes missed Monday's win over the Knicks with a sprained thumb on his right hand, temporarily putting a hold on what's been a fantastic start to the season. Over his last three games, Barnes averaged 20.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks.
    • Pascal Siakam, who rehabbed with the Raptors' G League affiliate over the weekend, could be back within the next week or two, but Barnes has already made a strong case to remain a fixture in Nick Nurse's rotation.
  • Very quietly, Kyle Kuzma is off to an encouraging start as an every-night starter in Washington. He's already notched three double-doubles (he had 13 last season), including a 17-point, 17-rebound, two-block effort in double-overtime against Boston on Saturday. Kuzma is up to 15.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.3 threes per game on the season, but his unsightly percentages (42.9% FG, 47.8% FT) are keeping him out of the top-100 in eight-cat leagues.
  • No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham made his long-awaited debut over the weekend, starting and playing 19 minutes in Detroit's 110-103 win over the Magic. Cunningham looked plenty rusty, finishing with just two points (1-8 FG, 0-5 3Pt), seven rebounds, two assists and one block. He rested Sunday against Brooklyn on the second half of a back-to-back but will be back in action Tuesday night versus Milwaukee.
    • Jonathan Kuminga, the No. 7 overall pick, also debuted Saturday. He saw only six minutes off the bench and posted three points (1-4 FG, 1-3 3Pt), a steal and two turnovers.
  • Jonas Valanciunas ranks behind only Rudy Gobert (17.2 RPG) in rebounds thus far, pulling down 14.6 per game for the struggling Pelicans. Steven Adams' replacement is off to easily the best start of his career, thanks in large part to seeing nearly six more minutes per game (34.1 MPG) compared to last season (28.3 MPG). Once Zion Williamson returns, Valanciunas could see some decline.
    • Elsewhere in New Orleans, rookie Trey Murphy hasn't been quite as fantasy-viable as those who took a late-round flier on him hoped. While his lights-out shooting in Summer League and preseason has carried over (40.7% 3Pt), Murphy is taking only 3.9 threes per game in 21.4 minutes off the bench. As of now, he'll likely need an injury or two to be relevant in standard leagues.
  • With four double-doubles in five games, and a six-block performance against Washington on Saturday, Al Horford currently ranks as a top-10 fantasy value. While it's an awfully encouraging start for a 35-year-old in the twilight of his career, Horford does make for an intriguing sell-high option.
    • Horford has never averaged more than 1.5 blocks per game in 14 NBA seasons, and he hasn't topped 8.0 rebound per game since 2013-14. The scoring, field goal percentage, assists and threes may be sustainable, but expert Horford's rebounding and defensive production to eventually come back down to earth.
  • James Harden is still struggling to get to the free throw line, but he did turn in a vintage 19-free-throw-attempt game against Indiana on Friday. That's more attempts than he has in his other six games combined (18).
  • In Sacramento, Marvin Bagley remains out of the rotation indefinitely. Bagley did see 10 minutes of action in the Kings' second game of the season (Oct. 22 vs. UTA), but he's been a DNP-CD in the team's other five games.
  • After a sluggish start, RJ Barrett has found a groove over the Knicks' last three games, averaging 27.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 4.0 threes (12-19 3Pt). His 62 points over the last two games are his most in any two-game span of his career.

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Nick Whalen
Now in his 10th year with the company, Nick is RotoWire's Senior Media Analyst, a position he took on after several years as the Head of Basketball Content. A two-time FSWA award winner, Nick co-hosts RotoWire's flagship show on Sirius XM alongside Jeff Erickson. He also co-hosts RotoWire's Football and Basketball podcasts. You can catch Nick's NBA and NFL analysis on VSiN and DraftKings, as well as RotoWire's various social and video channels. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @wha1en.
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